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INTERVIEW: Sami Hinnka – Ensiferum

Folk metal titans ENSIFERUM are back and they mean business. They are due to unleash a new album into the midst next month and it may be one of their best records to date. Distorted Sound’s Lotty Whittingham spoke to bassist Sami Hinkka about the upcoming release, their live shows and getting the right balance of old and new songs on their setlist on tour.

So ENSIFERUM will be releasing a new album next month, it seems a little different from previous releases; as in it has more clean vocals as opposed to harsh vocals. Is this a different direction ENSIFERUM are taking or is it just for this album?

Sami: It is just for this album. Since the beginning there has always been harsh vocals, clean vocals, quiet vocals and female vocals. We always have a variety of vocals; you always have to listen to what the soul of the song needs and the feeling of the song. On the new album, there is a couple of songs that have clean vocals; God Is Dead, being one of them, which I sang, and Don’t You Say which I also sang. Once we had recorded clean vocals I asked Petri [Lindoos] if he fancied recording the same songs with the harsh vocals on the track. He did an amazing job with the harsh vocals on the tracks that we were wondering what to do; all the versions sounded great. So, we thought fuck it let’s put alternative versions on the album; so if you’re more into harsh vocals, we have that version on the album but also we have the clean version if you prefer that. This will be fun in a live situation as we have two versions of the songs so the audience can either choose or it can be a surprise. It’s not a trend we’re trying to start or anything like that; it was just a crazy decision we made in the studio when recording one time.

Is that a trend ENSIFERUM would consider starting? Creating alternative versions the tracks.

Sami: Well one of my favourite bands NIGHTWISH, they release instrumental versions of their songs on their albums so the next trend will be alternative versions with different vocals.

You previously mentioned you look at what each song needs when deciding on which vocals to use, is this something that comes into the song writing process and you decide the melody later?

Sami: No actually, when writing a song, you really need to have the idea of what the song is going to sound like in your mind already. We think about the orchestrations and so on. Otherwise you go to the studio and you don’t have clue what you are doing. That’s the way we work. Everything has to be close to ready when you come into the studio to record as there is always a 1% chance to fool around in the studio and to have an open mind. Also to have a world class producer that we have had for most of our career, you have to allow that possibility that he might come up with a better idea but those are very minor details. For example, it might to do with the guitar works. They are small things but it could be those little things that could add value to the song. We spend a lot time in the studio twisting and turning the songs, particularly in the composing and pace. So when we go to the studio, we focus on the recording and try to get a perfect take as possible and not to spend too much time composing. I mean I know some bands who do that and only come in with a couple of riffs but they still manage to pull this off. However, the way we work is totally different, I really love the way we work because we all bring ideas to the table and then we arrange everything together. I think that’s where we have the advantage as we all come together with ideas and everyone is equal. There’s no one coming in telling them ‘You play this and you play like that’. Everyone gets to pitch in their opinions. It’s a slow process but it’s very rewarding and everyone can stand behind the songs.

Now you mention it, you definitely hear the togetherness and unity within the music.

Sami: We use everyone’s insights and that’s why the diversity of our music is quite vast. We talk about this a lot and we question is it a bad thing? Somebody might find a good song that they like, but there is nothing like that on the album or the next and so on. This is the way we work and every song is like a child to us. We’re going to keep working this way and not put ourselves in one corner where we can only do certain kind of stuff creating two hits and a couple of fillers and that’s it.

There’s a great selection of tracks on the album that bring togetherness which no doubt will be brought to live shows; which tracks are you most looking forward to showcasing live? I can imagine Way Of The Warrior being a good one to get fans engaged?

Sami: I am sure that would be fun to play live. The cool thing about this album is that every song is playable live. I mean of course we play our own songs but the albums that have really long songs like 17 minutes but to include that in a setlist is very difficult; you can rule it out of the festival setlists already as you only get forty five mins for that set so you don’t want to spend seventeen mins playing one song. You want songs that are quite short and for people who like ENSIFERUM generally, we have a few catchy songs. One of the biggest problems we have now is that we don’t know which songs we’re going to play on the upcoming tour from the new album. I can tell you now there are some members who will want to play the whole album but we’re not going to go there. We would love to play the new stuff of course but you have to think about it from a fan perspective. For example, I am fan of IRON MAIDEN and I hadn’t seen them live that many times. On their tour for Matter Of Life And Death, I went to see them in Helsinki and they played the majority of that album. Don’t get me wrong it’s a great album but sorry to sound cliché it would have been nice to hear some of the classics. So it’s difficult to get the balance right, there are songs you want to play live. You have to think of the hardcore fans who haven’t seen you ten times so you think of what they would like to hear and if you have the hardcore fans who have seen you ten times we think of adding some rare tracks. We have rule regarding the sets, that it has to include a song from each of the albums which is becoming more and more difficult. I suppose when you’re promoting a new album, you might have like five or six songs from the new album. In answer to your question, I am looking forward to playing every song. I really can’t wait to play the first single we released For Those About To Fight For Metal; it’s the cheesiest song we have ever written but I am sure people will have a lot of fun and I know we will.

Looking at the lyric video of that song on YouTube, it’s received high praise already. Speaking of finding the right balance for your tour’s setlist, would you consider using social media to ask your audience what songs they would like to hear? I’ve noticed quite a few bands using this tactic.

Sami: We have been talking about that for a couple of years now and it might be a good option to do that. We were thinking of listing some songs, including some new ones and having the fans vote for which songs they like best, we also thought about getting feedback from the fans. That might actually be fun to do. I know quite a few bands that have done it already.

Now this is this first album with Netta Skog as a full time member of ENSIFERUM as opposed to a session vocalist in One Man Army. Would you say she has settled in well?

Sami: Yes she has. Changing member from Emmi Silvennoinen to Netta ran very smoothly. Netta was a substitute for Emmi for a few tours, Emmi told us she wanted to step down so it was only natural that Netta was asked to step in. We also knew on how talented she is as a musician and how creative she is, so this was a real advantage for us. She comes from a musical background and we always tell her when we share ideas, don’t be afraid to voice your opinions and ideas, also to not be intimidated by four guys here together. We’re very straight forward when it comes to talking about ideas for songs but we always respect each other very much and understand each other’s visions much better. So composing is really fun together. I am really happy that she states her opinions and her ideas, a lot of which are actually on the album. We know she’s an excellent singer so it would have stupid not use that on the album. I had a song Feast With Valkyries in my mind, being a heroic song and how it would have been good to have the song lyrics quoted from a different perspective. So instead of a fallen warrior it would be from the point of view of a Valkyrie.

So to round up, what other plans does the ENSIFERUM camp have?

Sami:  We’ll be finishing off the touring side of One Man Army, we then have a month off in between to do promo for Two Paths. Then it’s going to be busy for a couple of years and we’re already working on new songs for the new album. We have big plans in the ENSIFERUM camp we can’t reveal yet.

Two Paths is set for release on September 15th via Metal Blade Records.

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