Interview with Sami Hinkka/ Ensiferum

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

What got Ensiferum to join the campaign “Music improves Brain Health”?

-”This is a really important topic. The brain is the most important part of our body and spreading information about health issues that are related to brain and memory can never be a bad thing. When you are no longer 18, you understand a bit more about the world and life. Friends, relatives and other people you know are getting older and brain health will and already has become a very much live issue, so I got the feeling I need to be part of this campaign.”

Have you witnessed memory diseases in your family? Do you know anyone with a memory disease?

-”Yes. My older relatives and grandparents lived further away and when I met them once or twice a year, I started to notice changes in their capacity to remember things. When I turned 40 and got wiser in life, it became clear that this can happen to my nearest ones as well. I’m not just some lousy musician, but a licenced practical nurse and a Bachelor of Social Services and I’ve worked in elderly care. At work, I became aware of things that are related to ageing and learned about memory diseases from a daily-life base.”

Are you going to work in music business your whole life or have you thought about returning to practical care?

-”I never thought about being a full-time musician. My older brother played guitar and my dad has played drums since he was 12, so it was quite natural for me to pick up an instrument too and have fun with some friends. We spent our teenage years in the basement playing Guns n’ Roses, Metallica and all kinds of covers and didn’t have time for doing anything bad. In the 90’s, they used to think that boys with long hair are all troublemakers, but that was the thing that kept us out of trouble. Hanging out with cool guys and having fun by playing together improved our musical skills, of course, and because you never know what lies ahead, you can find yourself on a world tour as a full-time musician someday. ”

-”Every now and then I still work as a substitute in daycare and I really enjoy it. Being on the road with the band and other musicians can also be some sort of a kindergarten too. Seriously speaking, the music business itself is sometimes very hard and unsteady, and that’s why I like working from nine to five in a job that makes a difference and has a meaning, and where there’s always need for workers. I’m interested in elderly care and could maybe study more geriatrics. You don’t make a fortune by working in social and health care services, but I think of it as a so-called safety net. However, making music is something I won’t ever stop, even if the income is unsteady.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

For many people music and going to gigs is a pastime activity. For you as a musician it’s work. Working in health care is a welcome change to that, but how do you relax?

-”I have to say that even if making music is work, playing live doesn’t always feel like it. It’s one of the best moments in your life when you’re on stage and interact with the audience. We play mostly in Middle Europe and North America and haven’t done that many gigs in Finland, so it’s always fantastic to get the people, who maybe haven’t heard or seen us before, in the right mood.”

-”I like to read a lot, watch films and go to movies and I have invested in a home entertainment system. It might sound funny, but at home I don’t listen to music that much. I like silence. If I listen to music, it has with Ensiferum to do, or with my other band Metal de Facto. We are currently making our first album and I listen to demos when walking outside or sitting in a bus, and analyse them. Of course there are moments where the music has a big escapistic meaning.”

-”Going to see a gig is different when you work in that field. You think about things like “oh, that’s a nice stage set up” or “how did they do that” or analyse the sound and enjoy good playing and vocals. So it’s not quite the same it used to be, but live music still has a great impact. A couple of summers ago we were in Poland with Nightwish, the band I’ve really liked from their first album on and have seen in 1998 for the first time. Since our crews know each other, we had the opportunity to follow the show next to the mixing table after our own gig. A glass of wine and Ghost Love Score with volume, it got me a bit emotional. I consider myself too old for mosh pits and stuff. I joined one in the concert of Faith No More and got a black eye. However, live gigs still have that famous something about them, when you don’t analyse too much.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

Do you get inspired by films when making music?

-”I like to watch films and I have made a decision that I won’t watch the making of part of any film. I bought the Collector’s Edition of the Lord of the Rings, for example, but I don’t want to see what happens behind the scenes, because I don’t want to break the illusion. One of my favourite bass players Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) once said in some interview that he’s a real basketball fan (L.A.Lakers), but he wouldn’t ever want to meet the players he admires so much, so that they wouldn’t turn out to be just ordinary guys or total dumbasses. Maybe that’s the reason why people don’t want to meet their idols.”

-”I don’t think I get my inspiration from films, but I admit that Braveheart and Conan the Barbarian style heroic action suits me and Ensiferum well. I had a chat some time ago with my friend Teemu Suominen, who also runs our previous record company. We sat in a bar, talked about movies and when I told him that I used to play folk and schlager music with my dad at summer weddings and pre-Christmas parties, he said “Think about how far it has brought you. Conan the Barbarian and schlager music. That’s what Ensiferum plays, only with an e-guitar. You have combined those two things”.”

It has been scientifically proven that music has a positive impact on the brain. What kind of music makes you relax? Is it always heavy metal or do you have some kind of a “guilty pleasure” band?

-”It certainly does not have to be heavy metal. I was disappointed when Björk cancelled the concert I already had bought tickets to. I really admire her, even though I said something along the lines of “this is artsy shit” when Björk was releasing her first albums. I remember, now while we’re talking about memory and remembering, the moment in the beginning of the 21th Century. I guess it was 2005. I was vacuuming my crib and just at the right moment, I stopped and heard Björk’s singing at its climax. It was so good. I had heard the song many times before but I remember how it really hit me that time.”

-”But yeah, heavy metal isn’t the only thing. I have always told every young musician to go to school first and quit while they can. Just kidding, I have said that they should listen and try to play totally different kinds of music. It will widen their musical horizon and bring them further because analysing why one thing works and some other doesn’t is good for you.”

-”I could also mention Ella Fitzgerald and old jazz stuff like that that I listened on Spotify at some point. Two genres I like are jazz and classical. I don’t have educational background on classical music but I understand the theory and have studied it by myself and with the help of my older brother. Those two genres are something I don’t really get and that fascinates me. At heavy metal gigs I can go through how they play and how the solos and melodies go in my mind, I mean it’s quite predictable unlike jazz and classical music which are beyond my understanding. A real challenge for the brain.”

-”Lately I bought a cd by Hawaiian ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo. He’s a big guy who sings like a little angel. It’s great music for when you want to chill and travel to Hawaiian beaches in your thoughts.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

There is a study about how the structure of the contemporary music is much simpler than the concept of the music made in the 60’s and 70’s, for example. The music of today makes people kind of stupider. Do you see it that way?

-”That’s a pretty radical claim and I understand that it’s a provocation. But on the other hand I believe there’s a point in it.”

-”I don’t listen to the radio and I have lost track of all pop artists. I hardly watch television, just some documentaries online in YLE Areena or some series or movies that people recommend to me. I think the concept of pop music that sells well is widely known from the past decades and it’s all about reusing old ideas.”

-”When I was young, Asko Kallonen once said that he can do a radio hit as quick as anything. Maybe the world class producers have the passion for making music, but I would rather say it’s more all about selling the artist and image. If Lauri Tähkä made a rock-hard black metal song, it would be so controversial to his image as an artist that the metalheads wouldn’t respect it. It all comes down to the capitalist forces, of course. People tend to think that the more some artist or song is played in the radio and shown in other medias, the better it is. Also the function of the music can be discussed. I don’t think it’s wrong to go dancing at the clubs to pop hits with simple catchphrases and be satisfied. There’s no right way to enjoy music. Arguing about that is a first world problem thing.”

The living will is a document that lets people express their wishes concerning their medical treatment and care. You can also list the kind of music you want to listen if you are in a medical state that prevents you from deciding or letting people know what you want. Which songs or bands would you put in your living will?

-”I haven’t heard about a living will. That is one difficult question. I would list a wide range of songs. Tapio Rautavaara for sure, that’s what my dad used to play and we listened to Rautavaara when driving to our summer house. Schlager, even though I didn’t appreciate it as a kid. When I played it with dad, I found a lot of good songs among that genre.”

”My granny had Alzheimer’s Disease and she always smiled and had tears in her eyes when I told her my childhood memories. So she wasn’t in a state in which she wouldn’t comprehend anything and that’s why I want to have different kinds of music on my list, not just Kulkurin iltatähti or something like that but also the hits of the 90’s and Iron Maiden, a very important band to me. And Ella Fitzgerald. Absolutely. The music that makes me feel happy and not just the Finnish melancholy, although it has its own place and time. Music is a strong channel for emotions. I would like to hear bands and songs that lift good memories to the surface. Björk, Faith No More (the first black eye in my thirties) and Trio Niskalaukaus at Tuska metal festival on a small dirty stage back in the years when I still was at school. Nightwish, and Ensiferum too, because it’s such a big part of my life. Your own music, that you have spent hundreds of hours playing and editing, it’s not the first thing you listen to at home. After a while it’s fun and the songs bring you fun memories, like the ones in the album From Afar (2009) which Markus and I composed in his living room.”

-”I never played my music to granny when I visited her. It was more like talking and being there for her. However you shouldn’t think that people in certain age only can listen to some genre. In our merchandise worked an old grey-bearded man in his seventies. He was a grindcore fan and told us he’s always going to be in the front row at Napalm Death’s gig. It’s a cliché that age is only numbers but I think you are the one to decide what kind of attitude you have on life. Now they’re playing music from the 50’s and 60’s in care homes and after 20 years it’ll be like “ next the weather forecast and Slayer”.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

You’re touring around the world. How do you handle all the traveling and how do you keep up the good mood with your fellow bandmates?

-”As the saying goes, being in a band is like being married. One of our sound technicians has been around as long as me, since 2005. Of course you make good friends. In a relationship there are the ups and downs, and after the honeymoon part it might not always be so rosy when you really get to know the other person. But we wouldn’t have stayed together as a band if we didn’t like hanging out together and didn’t care about each other.”

-”The hardest part of this job is definitely traveling. It can be difficult to understand, if you make a trip abroad once a year, what it is like to pack your bags every weekend, be at the airport at 5 AM, drop off and collect your instruments in a hurry, drive 300 kilometers and play the gig, grab a snack and drive perhaps during the very same night to the next place. It’s quite exhausting and small things start to annoy you when you’re tired. It’s only human, but that’s why we don’t really drink much alcohol when we are on the road. And people pay to see us playing and of course we want to do our best, which is not possible if you have a hangover.”

-”I like to read while we’re touring. I always have a book with me. At some point we had 8-9 weeks of the tour ahead and I had packed more books than clothes. I was told to get a Kindle, which is quite handy, but I still prefer books. Exercising is another thing. I used to do yoga a lot and now that I have gained a little extra weight I’m trying to start doing it again. It’s necessary to train your muscles because traveling is all about waiting and sitting around, and then you’re expected to jump around with full energy on the stage. So you need to stay active. Visit the attractions in the cities, for example. It’s a huge privilege to be able to travel around the world and see places you wouldn’t normally book a holiday in, like the Central America. For me it works: I keep both my mind and my body fit.”

-”To the younger bands I would say that the best booze is the free booze, but it comes with a price. I have decided that the gigs are for playing only, and if I want to have a glass of good wine I’ll do it at home. People tend to think it’s all about Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’roll. The band Eläkeläiset told in their book that people have been amazed when they have been sober at gigs. You can’t marinade yourself with alcohol all the time. It’s not good for you. Who even wants that?”

-”I’ve seen bands that carry x-boxes with them and bands that work hard. They write new songs, play the gigs and after that they keep writing another songs. Or study. There are a lot of possibilities to spend time. You can’t always choose what happens next. The bus might break down, your stuff might get lost and then it comes down to what you make of that time. As it is in life as well, like Gandalf said.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

What does you family think of your tours and musician life? Is there time for a “normal” family life?

-”How would you define a normal family life… I’m really lucky to have a person by my side who respects what I do and encourages me, and it works both ways, which is very important. I was visiting my mom when there was Dr.Phil on TV. His wife was interviewed and asked what it is like when he’s traveling so much. The wife said she usually brings her husband’s tennis equipment to the hall so that the first thing he can do when he gets home feeling tired is something he loves. Apparently the wife understands how hard the work can be and is ready to give him some time alone. That makes the time together more enjoyable too.”

-”I know couples that have been together for like 20 years and have never spent a single night apart. For them it’s not easy to understand that I can be away for 11 weeks. Think of the sailors back in the day.”

-”They sent a letter home from some harbour and it took a lot of time for it to reach Finland. Now you can Skype to the other side of the world and because it’s so easy, you should always be available. Being out of wifi for a couple of days doesn’t count as an excuse.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

Can you mention one specific gig that has stuck to your mind?

-”There are many of them. I joined the band officially 1.1.2005. My first gig was funny. We were in Nivala Tuiskula, all young and excited. It wasn’t permitted to have bottles on the stage so we had our drinks in pints. After a couple of songs I was looking for my pint and saw that it had fallen on the floor. I started to wipe it with a towel and at the right moment they announced that the band has a new bassist: me bending over in my leather pants cleaning the spilled drink. One of the greatest anti-rock’n’roll moments ever. All good though.”

-”In the USA some guys from a tattoo magazine wanted to take a picture of our tattoos. Peku and I told them we didn’t have any. That was one short interview.”

-”One of the ”wow” experiences was in 2008 in Wacken, Germany. We had an early gig, at 2 or 3pm and it’s unfortunate, because it’s no point to have the lights and the pyros in a daylight. In Europe they often book the bands of this genre to play in the afternoon so that they get the audience to move from the camping site to the festival area. It was pouring just a moment before it was our turn to play and we had seen just a few rows of familiar faces in front of the stage. But after the intro, when the curtains opened and we entered the stage, there were people in the audience as far as you could see. Certainly 50 000 heads. We were like “what the hell just happened?”. It was amazing.”

-”At the point when playing live is not worth being away from my loved ones anymore, I’ll quit. You need to be honest with yourself.”

What do you prefer, playing small gigs or stages of big festivals?

-”In a club, definitely. I like to interact with people. It does boost your ego for sure when tens of thousands of people in Wacken or Hellfest yell, sing, crowdsurf, do mosh pits and walls of death to your music, but there’s something about that sweaty intimacy of a club gig.”

-”I hate the photo pit that can be ten meters wide at festivals. In Hungary the promoter had sold vip-tickets and divided the tent in two. Maybe 200 people with the VIP tickets stand in the front part of the tent and about a thousand in the back, and there was an empty space in between. How stupid is that. I had the feeling the people needed binoculars to watch the show and compared to Finland, the average income is lower, so they had paid quite a lot for the tickets. It’s important that you get what you have paid for. On the latest tour we did the meet&greet for free every day, as a protest to those with charge. It disgusts me that you have to pay to get an autograph from another mortal who messes up your shirt with a permanent marker. We spent 30-45 minutes among our fans and recommend that to every band. I understand that the business and the music industry are no charity work and people need to earn money, but still.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

An ”easy” question: What is the best gig you’ve been in the audience of?

-”I can’t mention just one. Iron Maiden the previous time, it was awesome. The band is close to my heart and the show was superb. We had to play at the same time at Hellfest in France and expected that no one would come to see us. Our tent was full though and I had to run from Iron Maiden’s gig to our own.”

-”Epic gigs? Well, Nightwish, like I mentioned earlier. And Ulver, a Norwegian band, in Nosturi in Helsinki. I had heard the name before but didn’t really know anything about the band when a friend (cheers Jukka-Pekka Miettinen) asked me to come along. I was amazed by the screens on the stage and it was nice to just feel the music when you didn’t know the songs. I bought their albums too but a live gig is always a different thing.”

-”Related to my work, I see a lot of bands I wouldn’t otherwise go to see. Jari Sillanpää, for example. I went there with a friend, neither of us could dance and we stood there fingers crossed that none of the ladies, who were my mother’s age, would come and ask us to dance. But that’s another story.”

The golden years of Finnish heavy metal were those in the beginning of the 2000’s. How do you see it now? Do you miss the hype or are you looking forward to a new boom?

-”The Finnish language is a restrictive factor to break through internationally even though we have bands with quality. It’s fantastic that bands like Moonsorrow and Korpiklaani sell abroad. Finland has a strong reputation as a land of heavy metal and we play that well, so I don’t think we’re losing it. Everything has its ups and downs and now that the young metalheads of the beginning of the 2000’s are having kids etc, it affects the club scene of Helsinki.”

-”I have a strong faith in the youth and I hope that they would bring the folk metal genre that we represent further in the future. Almost all bands of this genre come from Finland and finnmetal is still going strong. John Smith Festival was sold out and will last for three days next year, Tuska and Nummi were well-visited. I try to do my part and I’m currently starting a new band with old farts like myself and fellows in their twenties. We have a humoristic slogan that goes “Make power metal great again”. Mikael, the vocalist of Metal de Facto, is 25 years old and has listened to the same heavy metal classics as I. Lordi have made heavy metal suitable for the masses and Apulanta are playing at the Iskelmä Festari (a Finnish festival for schlager music) even if it’s a bit rough for that type of festival. But if there’s demand, it’s only natural to deliver.”

-”The last thing I’d like to say is for the policy makers: don’t make cuts in arts education. The reason why there are so many bands in Finland is that the kids have had an opportunity to try out instruments and learn skills in arts and crafts at school. Not everybody can be the next Alvar Aalto but being given the opportunity to try is encouraging.”

Photo: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

Photos: Ville ”Unicorn” Tarhala

Interview: Marko Mustiala

Translation: Riikka Tarhala & Heidi Malin

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