"Finland is a metal country, you know if you just go to a normal shopping mall you might hear Amorphis playing from the speakers, and that's like normal."
At Ensiferum's gig at the 02 Islington on 25th March, GMA found a moment to talk to vocalist and bassist Sami Hinkka about their tremendous 20 year career, their latest album "One Man Army", thoughts about Bloodstock, the fabled Eurovision question and of course many other things. The tour was coming to a close on the 25th and so understandably it was going to be a fairly emotional night, the tour was with their friends Metsatöll from Estonia (who we also interview) and was supporting the new album. As Ensiferum have been going over 20 years (as said), Sami gave us an insight into what the high and low points of the band's career have been so far:-
"(laughs), I'd say every show has been a high point of the career, low point? Erm, I guess for Markus the founder of the band, back in 2004 where there were a lot of line-up changes - those were the moments that kind of tested his faith". Since then the line-up has been solid for 10 years, and who knows if it will or wont change again (bands are constantly evolving). Thankfully Sami admitted that "Everything's working better than ever", so the prospect of a line-up change? Virtually zero chance.
Given the fact that "One Man Army" did exceedingly well across Europe having nabbed the coveted top 40 spot in four countries (Finland #1, Germany #15, Austria #37 and Switzerland #24), I asked Sami for his thoughts on whether metal music is or is not being accepted by the mainstream more nowadays or on the other hand is metal breaking newer ground?:-
"I guess so, it's kind of hard to say as a Finnish person because you know, Finland is like a 'metal country', you know if you just go to a normal shopping mall you might hear Amorphis playing from the speakers and that's like "normal". But yes I think in general metal of course is reaching new people, on the other hand all the young metalheads are getting older and they are having kids, and of course you teach them to listen to good music (laughs happily)". So is metal in the Finnish blood? "Yes! For some weird reason, I wish there would be like a really good 'deep' answer why there are so many metal bands coming out from Finland but I still don't have.... I just blame the long winter, nobody has anything better to do than sit in the rehearsal room and make music (laughs)".
Of course after making music, bands generally speaking go on tours and or play festivals to showcase their new stuff on the live half, so with Ensiferum having played Bloodstock last year, Sami shared his thoughts on the festival, question is would they ever contemplate going into Eurovision?
"Well we've played Bloodstock quite a few times already, it's honestly one of the best festivals in Europe, it's always a lot of fun and we have a lot of friends in the UK so it's always cool to see them. It's a professional festival where everything works and some of my friends have been there you know as guests. I've never been there myself, I've always been there just as a musician, but from my festival guests perspectives I've heard that everything works really well so, so keep up the good work!"
Sami gladly shared some tips for those unsigned bands or those new to the festival experience:-
"To be honest I don't really have an opinion about Eurovision (laughs), I haven't really followed anything what goes on in the pop culture in a way. It's OK if you like it, but I can't see Ensiferum doing it, we're.... nah, we trust in our own music so we don't need that kind of exposure"
As said the show that night is the last on the tour, so naturally Sami was happy to reflect on the past few weeks and share his thoughts. Additionally when speaking earlier about their landmark achievement of 20 years activity, has Ensiferum ever contemplated making a band documentary?
"We go home for around a week and then we go to a festival in Sweden, and a few weeks later we're going to hit the road with Fleshgod Apocalypse (IT) to do a European tour which is going to be fantastic! Then it's summer festival season, and for autumn and winter we have some special things coming up sorry I can't reveal anything yet, you know 'politics' about releasing dates and so on (hint there dropped?). All the time we try and work on new songs, we're hoping we can make the studio early next year and start the 'circle of life' again so, release the new album and do some touring around the world.
It looks pretty busy because we also did a few acoustic shows in Finland and they work out really well and is a lot of fun for us and for also fans, some people even said that they were the best shows they've ever seen from Ensiferum; they're like hardcore fans who have seen us like seven times, so maybe we also record some, there will be a lot of stuff that are like acoustic material so maybe we record acoustic things some day and it would be cool to do an acoustic tour actually. Metal Blade also kinda showed the green light for the new DVD's, so we also have to start working with that, so we're pretty busy for the next 20 years (laughs)!
Regarding the documentary:-
"Yes! At one point that was the plan, we actually started working with the new DVD already in 2010 and we shot some material and Markus the frontman of the band, he has LOTS of material of the early days, even from the very first show of Ensiferum when the guys were like 15 years old (chuckles), 'teenagers'. But yeah that would be so cool to do a good package with all kinds of history stuff, interviews with old members, stuff like that you know good material from all the 20 years, and then also have a really good show, some big venue with pyro's well you know a good show. But Spinefarm actually said that these days nobody actually buys DVD's, so let's put that on hold.
Now we changed the label to Metal Blade and I think it was around last Summer we were drinking with the guys, they were actually the ones to ask have you thought about a new DVD? We said yeah but nobody buys DVD's, they were like no no no no! So we talked about it a little bit and they are into making new DVD's so maybe some day, I'm absolutely sure that it's not going to come out this year but maybe when we turn 25 or something like that, but that's something we're working on. It's not the highest priority at the moment and the album will be.... (Sami gets lost in thought)... ah it's lost, I really like Metsatöll (basically Metsatöll were sound-checking downstairs and you could hear it through the double doors separating the stairwell (where we standing) and the auditorium)".
So we changed our conversation to Metsatöll, is it the first time they've played here?
"No they've been here (UK) before and I'm really happy that we got them on board, I can't really remember where we met the guys.... err no we did a few shows in Poland and just talking shit and drinking after the show, where we was telling them 'Oh we're going to the UK' and they were like 'Arrrr we really want to go there also and we're planning to go there, so we were like 'hey come on, let's unite forces' and so here we are. We're old friends and it's so cool to share a bus with them because they're old geezers like we are and then it's really mellow in the bus, most of the time, old men can party (chuckles) also but it's been a really nice tour", and so are Metsatöll realistically the best well-known band from Estonia? "Yes they probably are, well we always called them the 'Metallica of Estonia' (laughs)".
As with a handful bands in the past, I asked Sami a question that has pretty much become a stable household question within the GMA repertoire. Would you say that Metal lyrics (in Ensiferum's case folkloric) can be educational? Could metal lyrics generally demand a certain amount of intellect?
"In a way yes, when I write the lyrics of course I want there to be a point actually in the lyrics, so educational? Yes I hope so but on the other hand I never want to explain my lyrics too much, because like art in general there is no right or wrong and I think it would be really wrong to kind of tell the fans 'this song is about this, this and this', I want everyone to have the freedom of interpretation and if its just like a 'grab a beer and yeaaaaah into battle and just kill your f*cking enemies', but you can also find a deeper level if you want.
However the second part really stumped Sami:
"That's a really tough question because, I don't think art should be an elitist thing, that only this kind of music is for people who like jazz or something like this, it's just for people who really understand the music and all the theory, I have many friends who don't understand anything about music theory but they really like jazz, this was the first thing that came to mind. Even for me when I first heard this stuff I was like 'ah its so like.. artificial', something they're trying to be, something very artistic. But I am really happy that I went the whole circle and I really love the art nowadays, it just took some time for me to open my eyes and find some really good music. There shouldn't be IQ tests to be able to enjoy music, no matter what genre it is".
So how did Sami get into metal music, become a musician and keep himself active outside of playing music?
"I have to blame my big brothers, I grew up with AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath... that was just... those were my lullabies when I was a baby (laughs) and my other big brother he was an excellent guitar player oh when I was like 10 or something, and I just wanted to jam with him because it was so cool seeing him play "Stairway To Heaven", I was like 'awwwh that's so cool' and I really loved Iron Maiden already back then and Steve Harris was my god so, I thought 'hey' maybe I should start playing bass and he (Sami's brother) helped me to pick my first bass, taught me the first songs including 'Iron Man' (Black Sabbath), 'Comfortably Numb' (Pink Floyd) and of course 'Stairway To Heaven', those were the first songs.
Yeah from there on it was really natural to go to Metallica (he also got into some melodic band - could not quite catch the name), later on I got into much more, but also I think it's really good to have a wide horizon and keep your eyes (and ears) open, because the world is full of good music and nobody can be angry all the time you need all the scale, and as a musician it's really good to play different stuff and I think that's one of my strongest points as a musician, as a bass player that I played with so many different peoples, different kinds of music. Even when I started playing metal in my home town, the best musicians of all the guys were older than me and had a metal band. I hadn't heard any of the stuff that they listened to at that time but they were just the best musicians, it was so cool to play like them, it was challenging for me and I got into metal much later."
Sami had this parting message for various peoples:-
"I'd like to thank all the fans who came to the shows and in case you haven't heard the new album, check it out 'One Man Army' and hope to see you all soon and 'vittu perkele saatan' (is assumed what is said), it's cursing in Finnish" - make of it what you wish.