Interview by: Karan Dutta
I recently had the chance to catch up with Petri and Sami from Ensiferum ahead of their MTV Headbangers Ball show in London on 6 December 2016. Just before they went on, I was invited to their tour bus to have a chat with these gents and boy was it a fun half hour! Looking at past and future touring plans, I asked them if they’d ever played in my home country;
Sami: …actually, we played in India once.
MGM: Yeah, when?
Sami: Could have been 2009…or 10, something like that.
MGM: Was that in Bangalore or Mumbai?
Sami: I don’t even remember the stage. Mumbai I think, more like a university campus area. It was just before Christmas time so some us just flew there for the show, I only stayed like two days, some flew there for like a week, and it was quite an experience.
MGM: I’ve noticed that you’ve mostly toured in Europe, the US, some Latin American, you did Japan, China, but what about markets like India, you say you’ve been once, would you go back again, did you get a good reception?
Sami: Definitely, definitely, personally I’m into going wherever.
Sami: I guess if there are enough people that want to see our show and somebody to pay our flights, I’ll definitely go.
MGM: A lot of your music has a folk element. How do you draw upon that for inspiration and how does that translate into the albums you put out?
Sami: I think mainly comes from, of course, the culture where you’ve lived, the upbringing in Finnish folk music, like a Germans say Schlager music, is really minor chord based stuff, like sad, lonely. I think that’s why it fits so well with the metal music. But Markus, the main songwriter, whenever we go to a new country, he tries to buy a CD of the local folk music also.
He did that in China and also South America. I’m not sure if he did that in India, I guess he did because he’s got his thing always, he always has to get more of folk music. In Finland we have a really good library system, you can get like free books, Cd’s, whatever, you just go and borrow. I know Markus is pretty much the only person nowadays, I know, who goes there to borrow stuff. And then we just take that folk music and work with it. I think it’s really cool for him, even though nowadays you can access so much through Spotify there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not on Spotify or on the web.
MGM: So one of the things I was reading in some of the previous interviews you’ve done was that there’s obviously a lot of technology coming into music now and that has its natural tension, there are upsides and there are downsides, and you once mentioned that you guys try and stay away from multi-effects pedals and things like that. It’s just clean tube amps and you may use a single processor if you have to or distortion through the amp. How do you keep up with the times, but maintain that purity of sound?
Sami: That is a good question, like in rehearsal room, I have my multi-effect bass thing and I bought it early 90’s, I still have it, it works. And I always laugh at the guys when there comes some cool part I put like swoosh bass effects, I’m not going do it on an album, but I fool around during rehearsal. Guitar players are just having clean on distortion and I say, guys, come on there’s so much more…
Yeah. I think as a musician, your gear should be something that you are comfortable with. If you’re not into effects, and it’s just, you shouldn’t force it. Just between you and me (don’t tell anyone) I really hope that at some point they can at least try, because it’s fun, it’s actually really fun. You get a lot of inspiration, like when I compose I do it along with just an acoustic guitar and it turns out to be, I come up with the idea and just like an acoustic thing. I get a melody in my head, and I do a demo out of it, just like, I played with clean sound of guitar and distortion, and I took the lyrics from another song and just sang some parts – just the idea for the guys. I mean here could be this kind of harmony. And Janne was listening to it and said, “how about we turn it into something like this [plays drum parts on the table]” and I said yes! And that’s kind of the beauty of the process, if you just do it on an acoustic guitar, it’s something totally different and if you put it through like a distorted guitar and somebody hears it for the first time and they say no, no, no, no, more beat, more beat. That’s why I was going to the point that if you have effects, like delay, like a lot of the Amorphous stuff, many of their stuff if they would have delayed the beat just, wouldn’t work.
Sometimes you feel really inspired by some sounds and also if you get a new instrument, that’s really weird. Even though you have many guitars and you buy a new one “ah, it is so cool to play again.” Like, come on! But it just inspires you, a new instrument. For Ensiferum it’s cool that we use traditional instruments. So sometimes it’s cool just to- for example, Markus sometimes just puts the guitar away and takes the bouzouki. And he comes with totally different kind of melody, and one of a good example is on Unsung Heroes, it’s a song called Burning Leaves, that’s one of the rare, well not the whole song, but then the main melody was written on the road because Markus bought a dulcimer and we had acoustic guitars also, just to jam on tour, because the Unsung Heroes album wasn’t ready at that point, and he bought a dulcimer and he was like “oh this is in D minor.” Okay, cool! And we just started jamming, and there became Burning Leaves. So sometimes even though it’s a really simple melody, sometimes just a new instrument kind of gives you the feeling, and you’re like yeah! let’s start jamming.
MGM: So where does the songwriting start? Is it like you say, pick up an acoustic, develop a melody and then it grows into something bigger, or is more formulaic in that now we need to work with these electric instruments and we’re going to start preparing it like that? Is there someone in the band that structures the song or is it, everyone?
Sami: No, no everybody participates, we have a policy that everybody can and should bring ideas, we want that and it’s really nice that Netta had joined the band. We told her from the beginning that in rehearsal, we might be loud in the way we talk, just take your space and say your ideas and bring your ideas no matter how raw it is. I always say when I bring ideas, I’m a bass player, I make those with an axe, I need a guitar to be the small knife and shape something beautiful.
But Anyway I think that’s how we usually start, somebody brings an idea. Like a raw melody or one or two parts even, and then we start working together as a band. And that’s really the beauty of this band because we compose as a band. On the next album, for example, there’s one song that Markus had an idea for four or five parts for the song, but still, we twist and turn it together. He never said “okay, this is how the song goes, no, it’s more like I have this, this, this and this and they kinda fit together, so what do we do with them?” And that’s how it goes, and nowadays, we talk even more than before. We just- like one song, we were like totally stuck, where to go from here, do you have any ideas, and I said “guys, where it should go, come with idea, like a reference from another band or something, should we speed it up, break it down acoustically, what’s your feeling about this?” That was a really nice way to work, it is. For me, it’s a lot of emotion and I think every song should have some kind of… – it should be coming from somewhere and going somewhere, and no matter how twisted it might be, at least for us, it should be logical, not just random parts put together. You might come up with interesting music that way also, but for us, it’s really important that it makes sense, at least for us.
Sami: Sir! Everything okay? There’s Petri.
Sami: So when I started playing bass, I have a six year older brother who was playing guitar, and he was playing Yngwie Malmsteen already and I was like 10 or something, I was like “wow, you motherfucker, you’re so good” and I would play with him and Steve Harris obviously was my god. Well, you had the posters on your walls, all the guitar heroes, they were like superheroes, straight out of Marvel World or something.
Petri: Better than the Hulk.
Sami: Yes, definitely, anyway he got me into, we played Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t for many years, and I used to play with a pick then, that I started to play with my fingers. I used to play Life After Death every day after school, even before I started doing my homework to get this going [illustrates right-hand finger movements], and it was really funny. We did couple acoustic shows down in Finland. I bought a fretless bass for that to get a different kind of sound, and obviously, it’s a totally different kind of instrument, it’s so precise, and I was like okay, what am I going to play, I was alone in this room, and there I was – Life After Death! and then I started playing Life After Death, I remembered all the lyrics, and I was like “fuck you guys, it’s been like 20 years or something and I still remember.”
MGM: Well, that’s the foundations.
Sami: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry, I get carried away.
MGM: Please don’t let me stop you, these scripted questions were simply a guide which I feel I don’t need anymore. You’re free to talk about whatever you fancy.
MGM: So Netta joining the band this year? How’s that been, how has it changed the sound, influenced the sound, what’s been new, what’s stuff that you might be missing?
Sami: Well, she was touring with us for over a year before it was official.
Sami: Pretty much something like that.
Petri: Something like that.
Sami: It went really smoothly after all the kind of the change between Emmi and Netta.
Petri: Yeah. I didn’t actually realize any change.
Sami: In a way.
Petri: Because they’re similar in person and-
Sami: Really easy going.
Petri: Yeah. Girls !
Sami: Girls, yeah.
Petri: Not to sound like a dick!
Sami: Like today when we were in the town center, there I had kind of a flashback, you guys come out of a shop and she had a handful of Primark bags or whenever you stop in a city and I come out with bass strings and she has shoes and everything like that. They are girls, but I think the biggest change is she can move on stage, sound wise there’s no –
[we interrupt this program to bring you beer!]
Crew member 1: Do you need a beer?
Crew member 1: Yeah.
Sami: Not that I know.
Sami: Just leave it here.
Petri: We got beer, dog.
Sami: But we have a day off coming up, and a bunch of hippies.
Crew member 1: I got two cases I’m going to probably throw out.
Sami: No, no, no.
Petri: I’ll go and grab it.
Sami: Thank you. Love ya.
[and we’re back]
Sami: But in some ways, there’s no difference because she’s playing the digital accordion and it’s pretty much, a keyboard just with a different user interface.
Sami: Yeah, the biggest difference is she can move, Netta, she’s done a lot of shows just by herself, like solo gigs and played lots of different kind of music from Christmas songs to weddings to pop and she features quite a few big bands, so she has a wide horizon also.
So she has a certain understanding of our style, what we are looking for. And then composing wise, it’s really cool that she’s bringing ideas. And on the new album there’s going to be stuff that she made, of course, we arrange everything together, but I think it’s really cool and kind of brave in a way, but I think it’s only natural if you come to a band, first you are a fearful member then your full member, it’s not like you came in last, we’re not going to listen to your ideas. Yeah, but she can move on stage and was pretty much the biggest difference compared to Emmi.
Petri: Playing with a keyboard, you cannot kind of pull that off. We actually told Emmi to get this kind of guitar keyboard / e-board.
Sami: Yeah. She wasn’t so fond of the idea. [laughs] Maybe if she had to play with two hands it wouldn’t have been that cool if you can just rock like this with one.
MGM: Okay. You guys have done a bunch of covers as well? Favourite covers to do?
Petri: There’s quite a few over the years. My actually one favorite is the Barathrum cover that we did for the last album.
That is so cool because that song has two parts,
Sami: The Bridge.
Petri: The Mystical, whatever.
Petri: As it’s bridge.
Petri: Whatever you want to call that, demon growling stuff, on it, it was so much fun to do that one in the studio, and in the end, it turned out to be a fucking, awesome shit.
That is one of my favorites. And also the- [mumbles] I don’t remember the title.
Sami: On which album?
Petri: The last one.
Petri: Yes, thank you. That’s fun also.
Sami: I’d say one of my favorites, of course, the Iron Maiden cover is cool, and the cool thing is that’s, we have a dear friend here in London who takes care of our social media, and it’s a cool story how he’s like a dear friend now. This happened only 10 years ago, he sent us an email, he was a 15-year-old guy, a boy, “you don’t have Myspace” and I replied “yeah, we don’t know how to put it up and we’re just hippies based in Finland and we just make music” and he replied “I can do it for you in 10 minutes, I like you guys”. Things just evolved with it, we met him when we played in England and now he’s working in the music business, he’s going to do some lectures, and takes care of our social media, just a dear friend.
Just one fan email, that’s really cool! But anyway, he’s huge Iron Maiden fan and we asked him to do one solo because he also plays guitar. He plays one of the solos on the cover and is really amazing. But one kind of forgotten cover is Breaking The Law, I really like that one, it was so much fun to do because we made it in a way, hurried, so there was no time to over-analyze the things. Okay, we got the studio and [music sounds].
Petri: The guys did that in Finland and I was at home.
Sami: Oh yeah, you’re fucking weren’t there when we did the vocals.
Petri: Yeah, my friend has this small, home studio built in a closet.
Petri: Literally literally, in a closet, so he’s sitting like over here with the computer, got the tracks, and I’m singing like over here, shouting in his ear full blast, and he’s like “oh, it’s coming that loud” and I’m like “yeah.”
Petri: No other way dude.
Sami: Now I remember.
Petri: We only had time to do it once and send it and that’s it, there’s no take two. That’s it, what you hear is what we had.
Sami: It’s something Spotify eventually released as a single or something. Yeah, the called and said, “we need it”.
Petri: “Can we have it like tomorrow?” Sure – why not.
Sami: Let me make a call. [laughs]
As the conversation strayed just a little north of chaotic, the second and final part of the interview can be found here.
Acoustic shows, Super Powers and Naked members of the band wandering around the tour bus…